Local nonprofit law firm takes on state education system in quest for quality


A lawsuit that aims to shake the foundations of the state education system is originating from Gainesville.

Local nonprofit law firm Southern Legal Counsel is suing the Florida State Board of Education and a list of related officials in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs including parents, grandparents, Citizens for Strong Schools Inc. and the League of Women Voters.

The lawsuit centers around a provision in Florida’s constitution that mandates the state provide “a uniform, safe, secure and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education.”

Southern Legal Counsel and its plaintiffs are asserting that the state is not meeting these objectives.

Southern Legal attorney Kirsten Clanton said the suit is based on “our history of working with the kids who have been left behind in the system.”

She said it is influenced by “situations where kids were denied education,” noting that minorities and children living in poverty are often blocked from educational resources.

“Because it is a systemic issue, Southern Legal isn’t saying we have all the answers,” Clanton said.

Rather, she said, the purpose of such a far-reaching lawsuit is to establish that the system is broken, pushing leaders to examine root causes of education problems and to start a dialogue.

The ideal outcome from Southern Legal’s perspective is for the state to issue a “declaratory judgment,” a statement acknowledging Florida isn’t meeting constitutional education standards. The state would then be ordered to draw up a “remedial plan” — a course of action to get the system back on track.

As of October, Southern Legal was in discovery phase — collecting depositions and other information that could be presented during the trial. Clanton said retired superintendent of Alachua County Schools Dan Boyd is serving as an expert in the case.

A version of the suit previously ran the gamut through the appellate court chain and got knocked back down to trial court. Now, with an amended complaint including more information and more plaintiffs, the trial will commence in fall 2015 if all goes according to plan.

The issue is closely tied to economic development for two main reasons, said Southern Legal development director Nell Page.

The state education system is integral in training an educated workforce, she said, and people want to live in a state with a solid education system.

So, for the good of the economy and the wellbeing of families and children, Southern Legal Foundation is taking the Sunshine State to court.

“The courts are a forum used to hold the government accountable,” Clanton said. “The courts are a place we can go to change laws.”

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